Continuing from our Visiting & Tasting Anderson Valley series Part I: The Story.
While there are memorable sparklers and Alsace varietal bottlings, Anderson Valley is Pinot Noir territory. The typical Anderson Valley Pinot Noir is more savory and tightly wound, rather than fruity and grand like Oregon or distinctly earthy as in Burgundy. Really, the core of Anderson Valley’s Pinot Noir flavor profile melds winning elements of both together. Sometimes it can be stellar. Sometimes it can be a bit of a mixed bag with too many competing edges, as you might expect from a relatively young wine region still forging its identity.
That being said, pigeon holing a particular style is pointless really with so many differing terroirs within the Anderson Valley. With a small roster of high quality producers, the Pinot Noir tasting blitz was highlighted by the wide array of single vineyard expressions from Baxter and Knez. No matter the vineyard, both showed exceptional winemaking touch.
Baxter Winery’s brand new tasting room looks as if a sleek SoHo gallery has been uprooted and placed in an exact opposite context (welcome to Philo, general store literally across the street). Their wines are artistic with a laid back aura from Phil Baxter that show the rustic edge of Mendocino County with a savvy polish. For a quick crash course on how delightful and different tasting different vineyards can be, hop over to Baxter.
The 2011 Valenti Vineyard, closest to Baxter’s home and winery in Elk is light and meaty with significant tannins and a mushroom-umami character that hits home as Burgundian. The 2012 Langley Vineyard just north of Boonville glows with a ruby hue and unwavering fruit throughout. The 2012 Run Dog Vineyard near Boonville has a warmer, less temperate climate that shows bigger than the first two at 14.2% AbV with a bit more ripeness and full, well-rounded tannins.
All are excellent, but the flagship 2012 Oppenlander Vineyard with 100% whole cluster fermentation is sterling with a distinct red fruit attack that leads into rosemary and stone fruit nuances. I noted “big fruit but not fruity,” a tough balance for Pinot Noir, fully achieved by Baxter. It gets better towards the finish as the wine gains strength and polish.
It’s not all single vineyard Pinot Noir here. Just, mostly. The only Pinot Noir blend, the 2010 Anderson Valley Black Label, is much darker than the others with dried apricot, molasses, and the personality of of Palo Cortado Sherry. The 2009 Carginan from 85 year old vines offered lots of blueberry and fragrant turmeric spice; think a softer, fruit-forward Zinfandel.
Yes, that’s correct. Carignan. Oppenlander Vineyard also has Chardonnay, here as a fresh, snappy 2012 bottling with kiwi, lavender and peach notes that avoid the dreaded big oak and butter.
Baxter certainly had the training for Pinot Noir from UC Davis then various stints in Burgundy, and a winemaker father. The experience certainly shows in these wines that demonstrate care and balance. You smell it and taste it. And there’s a fun story behind the winery.
Phil and wife Claire met in France, though neither is from France. They were both studying abroad at the University of Grenoble—he hailing from California, she from Buckinghamshire near Oxford in England. A tale of love in France, not even in Paris! And yes, Claire has tried English wine. It’s not quite up to the level of Baxter’s Pinot Noirs.
The Madrones: Four Tasting Rooms
The only “upscale” destination other than tasting rooms in the Anderson Valley, like you’d expect to see in a Napa or Santa Barbara, is the Madrones. As previously mentioned it’s really part tasting rooms, part hotel, and part restaurant.
It’s an interesting set-up that succeeds mainly because of the level of wine being poured. Initially, I anticipated the four tasting rooms—Knez, Drew, Bink, and Signal Ridge—to really be four tasting desks in one large room. Nope. It’s four unattached rooms, each with totally different identities.
Like Baxter, the Pinot Noirs from Peter and Heidi Knez’s young label Knez Winery are an intense lesson in the importance of vineyards and how beautiful the narrative can be when resisting the urge to blend. They are also one of the “three” ants of Anthill Farms, the excellent Pinot Noir producer based in Healdsburg with vineyards around the Sonoma Coast and Mendocino County.
Knez sources from three vineyards they own, two of which (Demuth and Cerise, then the five year old, six acre Knez Vineyard is the third) are legends that could almost be considered Grand Cru (Burt Williams’ Morning Dew Ranch with clients including Drew would be the third). Let’s just say the importance of Knez goes down to the soil mix, slope grade, heritage clones versus Dijon clones, and then that extra sense of being in harmony with your vineyard day in, day out. There’s a geek out factor to these Pinot Noirs.
Knez winemaker Anthony Filiberti trained with some of the legends in cooler weather, New World meets Burgundian style (Lynn Penner-Ash, Josh Bergstrom, and at Williams-Selyem). The 2011 Demuth is exemplary and commencing its peak, striking with a distinct violet hue that is followed with a catchy spice covered smoke body leading to a meaty finish. It’s a tense, hearty Pinot Noir from a thirty year old, deep soiled vineyard.
The 2009 Cerise counters with big fruit character that is much softer in texture and fuller in flavor. It’s definitely gentler than Demuth. Most calm not surprisingly was the Anderson Valley Blend from 2012 that uses far more whole cluster fermentation, shown with distinct tannins, a jammy mouthfeel, a slightly raw open then plenty of stone fruit and a sour edge. The 2010 version that is 2/3 Cerise, 1/3 Demuth is much more rounded and a classic example of dark fruit mingling with earth, studded with cinnamon on the finish.
Don’t forget the excellent 2012 Demuth Chardonnay that uses a touch of oak with an elegant texture balancing mellow fruit, honey, and the slightest of minerality. It’s a first rate Chardonnay, reminding me of some of the new age versions in Santa Barbara County.
After the winding “Dramamine” journey is over, at the southern edge of Boonville when civilization starts creeping into view, you’ll spot Foursight Wines. When it comes to a quintessential local operation that’s family-run with estate-grown wines, Foursight would be the definition. All of the grapes come from the estate Charles Vineyard. Even the Charles family lives on the estate. Multiple generations of the Charles family grew up in the Anderson Valley (o.k., only since 1943 leaving South Dakota for the lumber industry in the Anderson Valley.
Foursight’s strength is Pinot Noir and is one of a few to craft Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. One of my visit’s highlights was the 2009 Pinot Noir, fully enveloping with ripe berry in a nose that attacks leading to a full, forceful body. The 2011 “clone 5” Pinot Noir from the Pommard Clone had the same berry intensity with a more savory edge on the finish with a raspberry jam nose. Foursight gets creative and light with the 2011 Charles Vineyard using 40% new oak that nicely blends strawberry and dried rosemary, while the 2011 “Zero New Oak” brings the same flexible body with elements of barbeque, mushroom, and ash. Certainly note the nicely balanced 2012 Sémillon with a dense sugar open leading to fresh tropical fruit and the 2011 Sauvignon Blanc that’s fuller than the norm with distinct butterscotch notes.
Goldeneye is one of the few Napa-like scenes, as opposite as it gets from tiny Foursight. It’s part of the Duckhorn family, started in 1996 when the famous Napa-based Bordeaux style winery became part of the Pinot Noir fan club. Yes, a visit is touristy and much more about wine “experiences” than wine tasting and discussion. But there’s no doubt that winemaker Michael Fay’s Pinot Noirs drawn from roughly 200 acres over four estate vineyard range from good to easily some of the valley’s elite.
The tour de force arrived at the end, an opulent 2011 Ten Degrees from three of the four estate vineyards, referring to the surprising temperature difference possible at the same time in an eight acre property. It’s smooth with structure, brimming with plum, spruce, and forceful but soft tannins. At $115, it might be the valley’s most expensive non-aged Pinot Noir. It might also be the best of the vintage. Another hit was the 2011 Gowan Creek striking with sharp berry, hints of mint, and pleasant tannins. The 2010 Narrows proved more tense with a heavy nose of warm spot followed by a lean body with a distinct strawberry jam on graham cracker profile.
A few Goldeneye Pinot Noirs, including the 2012 Migration from the Russian River and the 2011 Confluence Vineyard struck as me as pale and fruity, signaling heavy-handed wine-making and a lack of trust in the terroir. The 2013 Vin Gris Pinot Noir lacked the usual fruit, but still held interest, leaning more on black tea, lemon, and soy.
Drew Family Cellars
I rarely talk about Albariño with the same poetry as Pinot Noir. Jason Drew’s 2013 bottling of the grape is changing my mind. Deservedly praised by critics and drinkers, it is magnificent in its sincerity and bright balance of citrus and lurking spice of allspice and cinnamon. It has a surprise tension: light in texture but not weak, like a gymnast. The number one complaint I hear with Albariño is that it often falls into the refreshing but boring Pinot Grigio category. Safe and personality-less.
Some of the great Rías Baixas versions are the opposite of that, full of sea salt, lime, and not hardly dull and pale. Drew’s version from vines brought in from overseas follows that route (honored in the label’s drawing). We’re seeing California’s North Coast now isn’t just about Burgundy, Champagne and Alsace. It can be Galicia and the Douro, too.
Jason and Molly Drew made the shift from Santa Barbara County, where the Drew label started in 2000 when Jason made wines for Babcock Winery. Drew is fortunate to be one of the few wineries to source from Burt Williams’ famed Morning Dew Ranch Vineyard for Pinot Noir. Anytime that wine is available, it disappears as fast as the Albariño.
Without a chance to sample the Morning Dew Ranch, the leader of the pair of Pinot Noirs I tried was the 2012 Fog Eater from several vineyard parcels, aged in 100% French oak with 15% new French oak. There’s a light touch to it without a light body, with notes of clove, ripe strawberry, and rose water. Drew’s Balo Vineyard Pinot Noir uses only 1/3 New French oak barrels and is correctly known as the most aggressive vineyard for fruit weight and tannins. It opens with sweet plum then shows a distinct smokier second half, needing a bit more balance and I’d like to see stronger earth to it. Age should build up the body and smooth out the flavors and textures.
The Perli Vineyard in Mendocino Ridge is a Different, winning Syrah bottling from 2012 with lots of sage and provençal spice on the palate but not the nose. It’s definitely a cooler climate-style Syrah, leaning more towards berries than significant peppery zest. Finally, the starting pour of the 2013 Vin Grise Pinot Noir is exactly what you hope for with a sunny day salade niçoise lunch: floral, with a touch of butter, figs, and a gorgeous light orange hue.
Speaking of the aforementioned Balo Vineyard, Jason Drew also serves as winemaker for another Pinot Noir label with a tasting room across the road from The Madrones: Balo Vineyards. Formerly just a vineyard, Balo Vineyards now is not surprisingly known for Drew’s work with the Balo Vineyard. Drew wines and Balo wines are certainly separate yet very connected. Balo’s tasting room also is the spot for picnics, bocce ball and the rare these days complimentary tasting. Balo also has arguably the best wine website url in California, Killerpinot.com.
Drew’s Morning Dew Ranch Pinot Noir isn’t the only one from that acclaimed vineyard owned by Williams (called the “Patron Saint of Pinot” once by the Wall Street Journal). Williams himself has a small label appropriately called Morning Dew Ranch but is now retiring fully after completing the 2009 vintage recently. Good luck procuring some since the wines are mail order only and demand is sky high. Family members of Williams also make wines with the vineyard’s fruit for Whitcraft Winery and Brogan Cellars.
Black Kite Cellars
Another worthwhile Pinot Noir label, but somewhat hard to find without a tasting room, is Black Kite Cellars. The estate Kite’s Rest Vineyard is in the “Deep End,” in 12 acres that used to grow Gewürztraminer. Founders Donald and Maureen Green hatched the idea of Black Kite after, you guessed it, a bicycling trip through Burgundy.
For vast rosters, Drew’s neighbor at The Madrones, Bink, is hard to beat. Here’s a winery with one of those out of nowhere into the spotlight stories. Deb Schatzlein started Bink after deciding that various electronics and engineering jobs couldn’t compare to the thrill of winemaking. I guess there’s some engineering in wine-making but chemistry is the direct science connection.
Bink isn’t her nickname as I had guessed seeing how winemakers love to choose winery names from nicknames. It’s for “black ink”: that “deep in color, multi-layered” quality Schatzlein prizes in wines. Then the most fitting wine had to be the 2009 Old Chatham Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon with a riveting nose of maple syrup and tomatillo and avoids that hot alcohol burn the varietal can sport, leading to a restrained body humming of dark fruit and clove notes. The full, chalky 2012 Sauvignon Blanc also from Old Chatham Ranch was the best of the varietal I found in the valley and the 2009 Thomas T Thomas Pinot Noir from the vineyard just down the road next to Toulouse Vineyards excelled in its refined body with distinct fruit, almost with a tropical element.
Bink’s estate wines from the Hawks Butte Vineyard are winners with a nicely aged 2004 Merlot unfurling intense fruit and smoke, like a Mezcal Vermouth cocktail. The most “blank ink” wine for the winery is the 2006 Syrah that struck me as too thin with hesitant spice, perhaps needing more maceration or more of a stem component. The 2013 Lumineux Rosé of Merlot struck me as classic with plenty of sweet strawberry, toffee and papaya. My main hesitation points were a hollow 2008 Melange from multiple vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah that had big smoke and wood flavors with a weak body and a light 2009 Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir, one of the rare dry farmed vineyards, showing a lighter red and much less fruit than its peers.
Restaurants and wine bars around the Anderson Valley provided me additional opportunities to understand the gold standard Anderson Valley Pinot Noirs: the 2010 Toulouse Pinot Noir was my trip’s final wine at Table 128 and was bold and intense with forest blended by raspberry. A Handley Pinot Noir followed that big style with slightly more earth and soy compared to the fruit (I was less enthusiastic about a Riesling leaning way too much on residual sugar with little body). Neither were tight or subtle, one bit. Toulouse and Handley were two of the pioneers, along with Husch (I enjoyed their beautifully balanced, slightly crisp Chenin Blanc that is a standout value). Big names are taking over too.
Navarro Vineyards, One of the 1970s Pioneers
In terms of putting Anderson Valley on the wine radar in the 1970’s, the wineries at the northern tip of Philo like Handley, Toulouse, and Husch were some of the pioneers. So too was Lazy Creek Vineyards, who is now owned by Healdsburg’s Ferrari-Carano, in a move that is a little like Sonoma’s answer to Duckhorn’s Goldeneye. For really bringing the valley to the forefront in the early days and staying strong today, the most credit belongs to Navarro after its founding in 1974. With a large grapes portfolio from Edelzwicker to Zinfandel to Sauvignon Blanc, they’ve got it (o.k., no Merlot but yes Cabernet Sauvignon), though it’s their Alsatian varietals worth noting foremost.
Navarro’s two Chardonnays are complete opposites: an in your face buttery, oaky, silky Anderson Valley Première Reserve and a very delightful, citrus forward Mendocino County bottling. The mineral-driven with low-lying sugar Gewürztraminer is classic, as is the earthy, sharp, very rugged Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 2012 vintage.
I was most captivated by the 2010 and 2011 Pinot Noir Method à l’Ancienne a deftly unfiltered wine showing the acidity of a cold vintage—great winemaking style and vintage combo example. Also keep an eye on the Deep End, bright and full of pleasant red fruit in barrel. I do have to admit looking at many winery websites every day, and one of the most “in your face join the wine club” sites I’ve encountered, and there’s a lot of contenders, is Navarro (not a great thing). It’s much too corporate feeling for the wine to seem like the headliner—and that’s saying something with Roederer and Goldeneye nearby.
Phillips Hill Winery
After visiting a few wineries and interacting with (much more knowledgeable) colleagues in wine writing, I try to leave some wiggle room for the unknown during these stacked itineraries. There are too many wineries to choose from and so many opinions. But few opinions carry the weight of those you get on the ground, in the actual region day in and day out. Multiple times, I was referred to Phillips Hill Winery. Decision made.
Phillips Hill’s winery and future estate vineyard is in Elk up high on the hill in the Mendocino Ridge appellation west of Anderson Valley, very close to the coveted Valenti Vineyard. The winery’s new tasting room in north Philo is an old apple dryer barn apple, allowing for covered outdoor tasting in fine weather. Owner and winemaker Toby Hill is a former artist who used that creative energy to learn winemaking—and truly succeed at wines with an artistic flair on the label and in the glass.
Their Pinot Noirs are led by a superlative 2010 Two Terroirs from Toulouse and Valenti that deftly balances chanterelle mushroom with sleek peach, lychee, and papaya nuances. It’s fun and lively. Using 90% Cerise Vineyard fruit, the 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir charms, showing youth with a cherry and apricot nose leading to edgy anise and ripe pear at the finish. The 2011 Boontling Pinot Noir is a bit raw and doesn’t finish sharply but demonstrates nice full blackberry notes that should age gracefully. The 2012 Valenti Pinot Noir proved the most plush and mature, with floral hibiscus tea and strawberries in forest scent, finishing on a stylish crisp note.
Also note the engaging 2013 Ridley Chardonnay that is more refreshing than hearty with noticeable oak and a 2013 Gewurztraminer that stays strong and balanced despite hefty sugar elements very reminiscent of agave and orange blossom honey.
Of course ever since Louis Roederer looked to California, sparkling wine has been a key Anderson Valley trait. The climate is after all much more similar to Champagne than what Chandon decided on in Yountville (they make excellent sparkling wines from wines in southern Napa, Carneros, where it’s much cooler). Roederer’s estate itself is an immaculate stunner, every bit as organized and serene as you’d imagine.
Sampling the Brut of Roederer and nearby Scharffenberger’s version, Roederer’s is much more intense and citrus-driven. I found Scharffenberger’s a little more tangy and smooth. But hey, Roederer now owns Scharffenberger Cellars so everybody wins.
Signal Ridge Vineyard
The sparkling wine to know isn’t at all from a major French enterprise. It’s Signal Ridge’s crisp and floral Brut, from the winery with the highest vineyard in all of Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties. They have the fourth and final tasting room at The Madrones, and their assistant winemaker Stephanie Rivin is also one of the sommeliers at Table 128.
It’s a small wine world and valley. Signal Ridge also crafts a Watchtower Zinfandel, a Watchtower Pinot Noir, a Pinot Gris, and, wait a moment, White Zinfandel that isn’t like the plonk of the 1980’s.
Innovative Newcomer Lichen Estate
As I drove on the switchbacks left and right the last morning racing back to pick up guests at San Francisco Airport, the wine that left a mark was only partially a Pinot Noir. Lichen Estate is one of the newest Anderson Valley projects, from the former owner of Breggo Vineyards, Doug Stewart. “Les Pinots” is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Pinot Gris, with beautiful savory earth and mineral characters balanced by a little guava and stone fruit. I must have been tasting the same as other experts. This month’s Food & Wine issue named the number one California wine to sip right now. That’s a bold statement but I’d support it at least for the top 10. Sweet, earthy, minerally. Altogether just gorgeous.
If this is the new direction Anderson Valley is going, I’m ready for more windy drives. Grab a glass of Pinot noir and as they’d say in Boontling, “Bahl hornin’!”
CORRECTION: This story originally reported that the Drew Family Vineyards 2012 Fog-Eater was made with 100% new French oak, rather than correct 15% new French oak.